As the A-Rod Turns
I wrote a two-part piece on Alex Rodriguez last year when he was supposedly washed up, struggling, could not hit a thing. What a difference a year makes. Now A-Rod is rewriting the American League record book and is apparently a different person. I'm reading about how A-Rod is carrying the Yankees and how his Hall of Fame talent is allowing him to hit home runs at a blistering pace. Will he hit 80? 200 RBI? It's just hard to believe this whirlwind from 2005 MVP, to worthless in 2006, and back to mega-star in 2007. A-Rod is good; he's always been good and he will be good for a long time.
The point of last year's comparison was to point out that his swing was not quite right. It is not hard to figure out that he is back on track this year, but how much of a physical difference could there really be? Honestly, I was not expecting much and I ended up surprised at how big of an impact a few small changes can make.
My first search for some insight into what mechanical changes were being addressed turned up a simple comment that A-Rod's mechanics were "firmer" and that new hitting coach Kevin Long had helped right the ship that is A-Rod's leg kick. According to a recent NY Times article, Long believed that a lower leg kick and faster hip rotation would help A-Rod quicken up his swing. After looking at the upcoming side-by-side that I will show, I have to extend a pat on the back to Mr. Long. Nicely done and way to earn your welcome to the Bronx!
First, I want to provide the full comparison. I am going to focus primarily the first half, or the loading portion, of the swing but it's only fair to show the full clip:
The 2006 version is on the left and 2007 He-Man is on the right. The pitch location is slightly different because the 2007 shot is much lower, but I chose this comparison because of the similar camera angles and pitch types - 91 and 92 MPH fastballs, respectively. On top of that, my contention last year was that A-Rod's actions during the loading or preparatory phase of his swing were drastically influencing results, and I feel the same way now. So because the pitch type and speed is the same, it stands that A-Rod's timing should be very similar, and the near identical camera angle makes for more realistic comparisons.
Now this is the portion I would like to focus on:
This loading phase shows A-Rod's leg kick and shift into footplant. Clearly, A-Rod's leg kick is more subdued, but this is just a surface observation in my opinion. If the only change was the height of the leg kick, I am not so sure we would be witnessing this freakish home run display. I believe the real area of improvement is what is happening in the center of the body with the hips and how they move as A-Rod prepares to unload. His hips are now carrying more of his weight into footplant, much like in his MVP season of 2005 and his old "Texas" swing (remember, one of Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo's five keys is weight shift and transfer).
A 1995 study by Welch, et al. measured biomechanical aspects of the swing and they found that professional hitters landed on their front (stride) foot with 123% of their body weight. A quick turn to golf also shows the different in force distribution between the feet during the swing among amateurs versus professionals. Here is a photo from a recent Golf Digest. Why is this important? It is my basic contention that A-Rod very literally "stayed back" too much in 2006. The research shows that high level swingers have some kind of movement to establish weight against the front leg.
Now most of you that have played organized baseball have heard the coaching cue "stay back" barked endlessly at hitters. It has its value in the correct context, but can be dangerous if taken too literally, and it looks like A-Rod is a prime example. A good weight shift to the front foot is essential and does not come at the expense of staying back. This image is extracted from the comparison I used last year to show how A-Rod was staying back equally but still shifting forward more effectively in 2005 compared to 2006:
If the weight literally stays back on the back leg during the stride, then the hips are allowed to fly open and can not rotate as efficiently. I suppose this is what Long was referring to when he mentioned that A-Rod could rotate his hips faster. To go with golf again, a student in my golf class broke off a nasty slice despite a very strong grip and a closed club face. As he unloaded from the top of his swing, however, he failed to establish his weight on the front leg, which allowed his front shoulder to peel open. This forced the club around the ball (out to in) and a slice was born. A better weight shift, as seen in the golf photo linked above, would allow this individual to rotate the back side through the ball and square up the club face. So there is your golf tip of the day from a high-teens handicapper (I can't putt).
Getting back to A-Rod, I did some quick measurement in order to quantify the change in movement. From the start of the clip to footplant, I measured the distance traveled by the front hip and A-Rod is now shifting 12 more units (from +16 to +28):
I pointed out last year how keeping too much weight back cost A-Rod some of his prodigious opposite-field power and guess what A-Rod is doing thus far? That's right - he is launching homers to all parts of the field. A-Rod is again an equal opportunity home run hitter (perhaps a public relations effort to please fans in all areas of the bleacher seats?).
What I would like to ask A-Rod is if he specifically changed his setup in order to trigger these adjustments. For example, notice how A-Rod's shoulders are tilted more in 2007 and his head appears more centered between his feet:
This is something a player can change before even initiating the swing and it can assist an effortless weight shift that can transform the swing. I've seen it in person working with different players, and this is also what I would have recommended for Marcus Giles last year.
Lastly, I want to touch on the overall position A-Rod reaches at footplant. He is clearly in a more athletic position, which should allow him more versatility in handling various pitch types. I'm laying off the measurement of his head position (it's lower) because the pitch is lower, but A-Rod's renewed shift is going to allow him to rely on his body to create bat speed early in the swing.
In the kinetic link and according to the principle of summation, one segment speeds up when its preceding segments slows or stops, so now A-Rod's hands can follow along for a longer period of time because his rotation is more efficient in delivering the bat to the ball. This allows a later release of the bat head which not only affords a way to generate more bat speed with the larger segments, but also prevents him from committing his hands too early on off-speed pitches. What this all adds up to is obviously a record-breaking April.
A-Rod himself said, "I'm just trying to keep it simple," and this is really all a hitter wants to do. Thinking about all of those mechanical things is too overwhelming when you are preparing for a 95 MPH fastball while also trying to foul off that two-strike slider. It appears that Long has found some nice cues that allow A-Rod to execute his swing without having to think it. He just feels it, and what a feeling it must be.
While I am not so sure A-Rod will top 120 HR this season, I don't feel that this is simply a hot streak. What we are seeing is a great player making great adjustments and setting himself up for a great year. Of course that means we are in for a great post-season (if the Yanks can get out of last place) and possibly a drama-filled off-season which will only add to this on-going soap opera.
He'll still choke when it counts. Bide your time.
Posted by: Mama Cass at April 26, 2007 7:58 AM
geez, not a Yankees fan? I'm not a fan in particular, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the post season. A huge regular season just piles on more expecatations I think. Then he really will need to be He-Man.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 8:02 AM
I think it's because he's wearing his pants so you can see his socks. That's why.
Posted by: Richie Rich at April 26, 2007 9:02 AM
yes I am sure the rest of professional baseball will follow suit and return to the high socks.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 9:26 AM
Great stuff, I really enjoyed it. One question though. While I agree that ARod seems to be in a more athletic position with the more subdued leg kick and slanted shoulders, I'm wondering if some of the perceived weight shift isn't due more to the location of the pitch than a change in ARod's actual shift. It just seems that on a pitch that's low and outside any player would naturally shift their weight a lot more than on a pitch that's up and in because to even get the barrel of the bat on the ball a bit of a lunge is necessary. Obviously with just two swings to go off of it's difficult to know if he may be using a greater weight shift on pitches higher in the zone as well but it just seems that using pitches in completely different positions can be a little misleading. I'm obviously no scout but those were just some of the things that I was thinking about when reading your article.
Posted by: jeff at April 26, 2007 10:04 AM
Call me biased but the A-Rod video clips and analysis are great. Jeff was on the cutting edge last year, pointing out the differences in his '06 and '05 swings and is now detailing what A-Rod is doing differently this year vs. last year, including valuable links to quotes, other articles, and spray charts.
A-Rod is so talented that he can perform well even when his fundamentals are off but April has shown all of us what he can do when he combines his incredible athleticism and skills with better mechanics.
Posted by: Rich Lederer at April 26, 2007 10:10 AM
your thought process is the same as I had. The 2007 pitch is low and middle-in(not outside) and it is hit into LF. The 2006 is basically right down the middle and belt high. Clearly A-Rod adjusts to the low pitch, but it comes as he starts to unload, so I really just tried to focus on the initial part of the swing
What was key for me was that the pitch speeds were the same (91-92). Remember that during this section of the swing that I am showing (up until about toe touch) the hitter is taking his stride and recognizing the pitch. So regardless of what type of pitch, the hitter generally prepares for the speed of a fastball and adjusts down. It may differ if he is sitting on an off-speed pitch.
But again, the timing aspect of the pitch speeds gives me more confidence that his swing timing, load and preparation have validity for comparison. Obviously, it would have been more ideal if pitch location was belt high.
I tried to emphasize that it is his load and weight shift that I think are the key changes. Get into a good position and the rest follows.
Plus there is such a big difference in his shift - it makes no sense that he would shift forward more in 2007 to reach a pitch that is actually coming faster (92) then the clip from 2006 (91).
Hope that clarifies.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 10:36 AM
One more big point---
I just went back and compared this 2007 shot to the 2005 shot and again measured the movement of the front (left) hip from load into footplant.
Guess what? They are the same.
Moral of the story - A-Rod is once again getting his shift on.
If his stride foot forces were being measured as in the research items I referenced, I would imagine that they would show he is bearing more weight on the front leg in 2005 and now in 2007.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 10:45 AM
Great article! I still have to look at the videos again to figure out what you are saying (and to see everything you are saying) but good stuff.
The cynic in me would say that A-Rod is having a salary drive of epic proportions since he can opt out of his contract after this season.
The realist in me says that the reason he stunk last year was because I lucked out and got him on my fantasy baseball team last season. :^) I also had Peavy...
Posted by: obsessivegiantscompulsive at April 26, 2007 12:06 PM
Great analysis. And if I recall correctly, Mama Cass choked too.
Posted by: Steve at April 26, 2007 12:20 PM
I think A-Rod was not seeing the ball that well last year and a bit of corrective eye surgery produced the dramatic recovery... just a thought.
Posted by: D.G. Foot at April 26, 2007 12:44 PM
Thanks for the quick reply. I agree 100%. Obviously the weight shift will be exaggerated by the location of the pitch but it's clear that he's loading his hips much more this year than last. It's really fascinating to look at because at first glance they look relatively similar but upon further review it is amazing to see how much more powerful the second one looks than the first.
I just want to say again how much I enjoyed the article. I don't know if you are planning on this being a regular column but I would love to see more. I think a few guys that would be really interesting to look at are Berkman, Michael Young, and Derrek Lee.
Posted by: Jeff at April 26, 2007 12:57 PM
what is more and more interesting to me is that I keep reading how A-Rod has such an exaggerated leg kick last year. I've seen links on SI.com (Verducci) and ESPN.com (Stark) that reference scouts and hitting coach Long regarding the leg kick.
I still think the height of the leg lift is a non-issue. Want to see A-Rod lift his leg like a showgirl, then go check out his swings from Seattle and Texas.
As Rich wrote to me: "Alex has his shift together"
If the leg lift is used as a teaching cue, fine and super, but how the hips load and move is much more important to me. Just have to find a simple cue to get the job done, in which case the leg lift focus might do the trick.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 1:09 PM
So, I'm not an expert on this, but what effect could the extra bulk (and absence of it, this year) have on all of this?
Posted by: Juan V. at April 26, 2007 1:44 PM
I don't have my notes in front of me put there was a presentation at this past NSCA sport-specific conference that addressed predictive variables in baseball. There was a positive correlation between lean body mass and performance.
I have not seen the particulars on A-Rod's weight gain/loss. If he was just fatter last year, I still don't see how that would really prevent him from swinging freely. It's not like he gained 30 pounds. But maybe it weighed (sweet pun) pschologically - ie he did not look or feel as good.
It's a good mental thing coming into this year - shed some pounds and some baggage. Rededicate, come in great shape and ready to roll.
On the other hand, Miguel Cabrera looks like a guy who has gained quite a bit of weight over the past few seasons and he is raking better than ever.
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 26, 2007 2:48 PM
That's some of the best sports writing I've read in a long time. Fantastic analysis.
Posted by: Mike at April 26, 2007 2:54 PM
A-Rod had put on a lot of muscle last year and it was well established by him and he noted that he had decided to drop some of that weight coming in to this year since it did not help him out last year. I wonder if the added weight (since his legs look bigger in the pictures you have from last year, though it is zoomed in a little bit more) made it a little less effortless for his hips to get around.
Posted by: Adam B. at April 27, 2007 3:35 PM
I read the Stark article and this week's SI piece, and I think you are right on about the showgirl analogy as far as the height of his foot being irrelevant is concerned. The key though whether it's a 2" or 2ft. stride is that it gets back down on time so that he's balanced prior to launching his hands.
The height of his foot certainly is not going to enhance or restrain the ability of his (or any batter's) hips to generate rotational energy. But, if an elevated stride leads to the front foot re-touching late, the balance needed to properly rotate, or rotate faster, will be sacrificed for style.
This is why the subdued kick is more than a surface observation. If that kick was not being managed better, all the good things you accurately observed taking place in his core would not be there. The more subtle stride gets him into that balanced load position on time so that his weight shift/torque happens as his superior athleticism dictates, rather than rushing/accelerating to catch up to the action.
I submit that a view of his "good years" contrasted with last year (I would take A-Rod's 2006 in a heart-beat) will show him stepping then swinging versus stepping and swinging.
Posted by: Adam at April 28, 2007 7:50 PM
I would like to add that his shoulders are tilted downward in the setup/load more than in the previous year.
Couple this with better weight shift he is creating much better separation.
Quality separation is the key to opposite field power. Just turning the hips faster will not deliver more energy to the outside pitch. The energy of faster rotating hips is directed in a direction other than what is necessary for opposite field power. The hands have to be free to turn the barrel for the outside pitch. Separation is necessary to help power those hands in that direction.
Posted by: Shawn at April 28, 2007 9:41 PM
An interesting article would be a comperison of the '05 and '06 Albert Pujolses. As I'm sure you can remember, Pujols was on pace to break the HR and RBI records in '06 up until his injury. He seemed to lower his stance and change the initial possition of his hands in '06. His stride also apears longer. Just a thought.
Posted by: KewlKid at April 29, 2007 12:58 PM
The main difference is he loads the hands in more or as mankin says, hides the hands.
have you seen yeager yet ?
Posted by: tom.guerry at April 30, 2007 12:38 PM
from this clip, the landind of the front foot is very similar. but the positions at footplant are not. I have a hard time believing that his timing would get that far off - his vision is less likely to change than his swing.
he had more of a leg kick back in texas than he had last year, so I don't know what's the fuss about him having a leg kick too high. again, non-issue for me. the weight staying back on the back leg would be (is) my are of focus.
hard to measure separation from the side - I'd have to check from the front
also from this clip, I don't see too much difference in hands loading. maybe it is more evident in other swings. And that is still less important to me than how his body moves into footplant
Posted by: Jeff Albert at April 30, 2007 2:36 PM